Prof. Rabkin has taught contemporary Jewish history, Soviet history and the history of science at the University of Montreal since 1973. Full Professor at the Department of History since 1987, he has recently developed and taught seminars on Islamic and Judaic attitudes to science and technology (full bio here).
Rabkin's most recent book, and our main topic of discussion, deals with the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism. This book was translated to English in 2006 under the title A Threat from Within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism. It has been nominated for the Governor General Award, the highest literary distinction in Canada.
As usual, readers can send questions to Prof. Rabkin through email@example.com.
Dear Professor Rabkin,
You have done important work in highlighting a perspective that is not usually heard today.
I was curious as to how you view the strong public sympathy exhibited by certain segments of the Ultra Orthodox Neturei Karta for the suffering of the Palestinian people and their cause of statehood? Is this something which truly lessens anti-Jewish sentiments in the Islamic world or does it, as some have claimed, provide terrorists with justification?
Dear Mr Handler,
Many thanks for your appreciation. It was, indeed, my goal to broaden the range of debate about Zionism, Israel and the Jews. Like many other humanists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Neturei Karta members have exhibited concern about the distressing predicament of the Palestinians. One of their members, Rabbi Moshe Hirsch served as a member in Arafat's government, incidentally not the only Jew to hold a prominent position in the Palestinian Authority. Neturei Karta members prayed at Arafat's bedside, toured the Hezbollah territory in Lebanon and met with the current Iranian president. Satmar rabbis visited Iran attempting to free Jewish prisoners there. Neturei Karta regularly demonstrate alongside Palestinians against the very existence of the Zionist state. These activities invite positive coverage of these Jews, complete with beards and side curls, in Arab and Muslim media certainly. Such coverage confuses those who tend to believe the anti-Semitic clichés borrowed by some Muslim opinion makers from the Christian realm. There is no indication that these activities enhance anti-Jewish sentiment.
During the presentations of my book on Jewish opposition to Zionism I have often witnessed expressions of pro-Jewish sentiments. I have heard this in several countries, including Morocco where I launched a locally produced (and more affordable) version of the original French edition of my work. Islamist newspapers were among the Moroccan media covering my book, and they expressed fascination with the phenomenon of Torah-based rejection of Zionism. Significantly, an article that I published in the American magazine Tikkun earlier this year was translated into Arabic and published in Beirut last September. This means that it was being translated literally under bombardment in the course of the hot Beirut summer. The topic of the article, drawn from my book, was the use of force in the Jewish tradition and Zionist practice. It is quite remarkable that in those circumstances some Arab intellectuals chose to sensitise their people to distinctions between Judaism and Zionism.
The rapprochement activities of the Jews who reject Zionism tend to undercut the image of an intrinsically evil enemy and to show that one can talk with the other side, try to find common ground with them. In fact, even some prominent religious Zionists, such as Rabbi Froman of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, advocate and practice dialogue with the most determined adversaries of the State of Israel. Rabbi Froman has long maintained contacts with Hamas. Soon after this Islamic movement was elected to govern the Palestinian territories, he wrote in this newspaper that his tentative agreements with Hamas had been systematically undermined by Israel's security officials, which led, in turn, to the loss of life on both sides. Rabbi Froman, alongside with two other rabbis, were also reported to try to bypass the Israeli government and negotiate directly with Hezbollah during the recent conflict. The rabbinical penchant for negotiating deals is apparently not limited to the opponents of Zionism.
Neturei Karta and other Jewish religious anti-Zionist groups are traditionally pacifist and argue for a peaceful dismantlement of the Zionist state. This would belie the accusation that their activities justify terrorism. Both Neturei Karta and those who rely on the use of force claim that they try to save lives. While this claim is hard to substantiate, it is obvious that the rabbis of Neturei Karta do not endanger lives, except, perhaps, their own.
Hi Professor Rabkin,
You make it sound as if the Zionism movement is the cause of the separation between a majority of the Jewish people and the "normative framework of Judaism," as you put it. But isn't it more historically accurate to find the root cause of this split in the modernization and liberalization of the Jewish condition that has progressed since Napoleonic times? In this context, isn't Zionism simply one of many responses to this changing condition of the Jewish people (and to the global rise of nationalism)? Isn't Hasidic Judaism as we know it today also a response to this changing condition? A response that attempts to negate the change?
Thank you,Itamar Landau
You are quite right that Zionism is one among many consequences of secularisation. It appeared at first as a paradox. For, while it claimed to be a force for modernization against the dead weight of tradition and history, it idealized the biblical past, manipulated the traditional symbols of religion, and proposed to transmute into reality the millennia-long dreams of the Jews. This transfer of the concept of redemption from the exclusive domain of God to that of worldly political action, incarnated for many Jews in the Napoleonic reforms, constituted a break with tradition that was to be echoed a century later in Zionist ideology.
Zionism has been much more successful than other movements in consolidating the achievements of secularisation, in forging a new identity. Many Jews of the former Soviet Union enthusiastically developed a strong Soviet identity. Yet, once the Soviet ideology began to decay, many of them came to embrace the Zionist identity. When the Soviet Union collapsed altogether, it became the most common pillar of identity for the Soviet Jews, whatever their choice of abode. The same happened with the Bund, whose Jewish People's Schools no longer teach socialism, let alone the ideas of the movement's staunch opponents of Zionism, but rather instil a soft Zionist identity in their charges.
A striking example of the way in which Jewish nationalism came to substitute for Judaism was the call issued by a young Jew to Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian author and Zionist leader: "Our life is dull and our hearts are empty, for there is no God in our midst; give us a God, sir, worthy of dedication and sacrifice, and you will see what we can do." The response came swiftly, and took its inspiration from the mass movements that were then appearing in many European countries: Betar, a disciplined youth organization that was able to mobilize tens of thousands of Jewish young people throughout Europe.
Zionism put forward a new definition of what it means to be Jewish. The secular Jewish identity developed largely in the Russian Empire. The new concept eliminated the religious - and thus normative - dimension of Judaism and retained only its biological and cultural dimensions. Unlike the Reform movements in Central and Western Europe, or the Reform synagogue, which, though it modifies Judaism does not abolish it, the Jewish reform movements of Eastern Europe sought to eliminate every notion of religious responsibility. This is one of the reasons why Zionism, rather ineffective among the Jews in Central and Western Europe, attracted the Jewish masses mostly to the East of the Vistula. Many secular Jews have recognised that Zionism and the State of Israel offer them a particularly propitious milieu for maintaining their identity. In most other countries, the Judaic framework, however diluted, would remain the main pole of Jewish identity.
The upsurge of Jewish nationalism in Europe is a relatively recent development for the continent. Zionism and the state of Israel have profoundly altered the self-image of many Jews, as well as the image they project to the world. In this sense, the break is much more thorough than in any other group whose elites - in their hopes of preserving the people - have aspired or acceded to independence. But the Jewish paradox remains instructive: in the attempt to preserve the people, the people itself has changed so much as to become unrecognisable, in addition to emerging as a source of chronic military conflict.
The Torah speaks to the Jews as a pilot population, whose example should instruct, inspire and influence all humanity. It stands only to reason that the controversy fired by Zionism bodies forth lessons for peoples other than the Jews. This may explain the interest my book elicited in so many countries and cultures. It is rather unusual for a book published in French in Quebec to be translated into six languages, with a few more on the way.
Dear Prof. Rabkin
The first question is usually more general as to let people understand our topic of discussion. So - what is "Jewish opposition to Zionism" and how significant it is in today's world?
Last November, those who remembered it at all, celebrated the 59th anniversary of the Partition Resolution. A majority of the member-states of the United Nations decided on November 29, 1947 to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. A minority objected. Significantly, this minority included the Arab inhabitants of the region where the State of Israel was to be established. Their hostility to the Zionist project has not subsided in spite of the recognition of Israel by several Arab states. The recent commemoration of the Palestine Solidarity Day around the world is a good reminder.
What is less known is that many of Palestine's traditional Jews objected to the Zionist project even more resolutely, and their opposition has also refused to go away. Many Jews feel angry when they see Neturei Karta members shake hands with the leader of Iran or demonstrate on New York's Fifth Avenue against the very existence of the State of Israel.
Indeed, Jewish opposition to Zionism has often provoked more anger than debate. It is to stimulate debate (and hopefully to assuage anger, which is never a good advisor) that I have written a book, which initially appeared in French under the title Au nom de la Torah (In the Name of Torah). This year it has come out in English as A Threat from within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood/Zed Books).
Was it worth the effort? Curiously perhaps, both Zionist intellectuals and the orthodox rabbis who oppose them agree that Zionism represents a negation of Jewish tradition. Yosef Salmon, a fellow historian working in Israel, writes:
"But it was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel, the object of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption. The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition."
Judaic opposition to Zionism may seem negligible today. Many secular Jews have come to see in Israel the only hope of survival for the secular Jewish identity. Many Orthodox Jews have also embraced the Zionist worldview, even though their embrace remains circumstantial and emotive. They would be reluctant to question the authority of a Chofetz Chaim or a Baba Salé, a Satmarer Rebbe or a Lubavitcher Rebbe, all of whom articulated strenuous opposition to Zionism and its reliance on military force. In terms of sheer numbers, Judaic anti-Zionism remains modest; the majority of Jews are unaware of the Judaic concerns that motivate it. But it is not merely the longevity of this opposition that makes it significant. In our history, rigorous minorities tend to become triumphant majorities. This is why is it is important to understand the origins and intentions of this opposition. After all, today, the secularized majority of the Jewish people most surely would appear marginal in relation to the continuity of Jewish life, as it has been lived for more than three thousand years.
I have presented my book (which is now available in six languages) in over a dozen countries, and it has truly surprised me that such a broad range of readers - Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and non-religious - found this topic fascinating. Many told me that they had long wondered if it was right to confuse Judaism and Jews with what they read and watch in the media about Israel.
Jewish opposition to Zionism seems at first glance to be a paradox. After all, the public almost automatically associates Jews and Israel. The press continues to refer to "the Jewish State." Israeli politicians often speak "in the name of the Jewish people." Yet the Zionist movement and, later, the creation of the state of Israel were to cause one of the greatest schisms in Jewish history.
My subsequent question is almost trivial: under what circumstances you see this "rigorous minority" become a "triumphant majority"?
As an historian, rather than a prophet, I can remind your readers that this has happened more than once. The emergence of the rabbinic Judaism nearly tow millennia ago is particularly apposite since it was a Temple-centred cult that gave way to a more cosmopolitan religion.
Let me quote Professor Jacob Neusner, whose observation illustrates my point:
"If the Jews as a group grow few in numbers, the life of the religion, Judaism, may yet flourish among those that practice it. And if the Jews as a group grow numerous and influential, but do not practice the religion, Judaism (or any other religion), or practice a religion other than Judaism, then the religion, Judaism, will lose its voice, even while the Jews as a group flourish. The upshot is simple. A book (that is, a set of religious ideas, divorced from a social entity) is not a Judaism, but the opinions on any given subject of every individual Jew also do not add up to a Judaism."
Today we have a majority of Jews who do not accept the normative framework of Judiasm, whatever its definition. Their identity largely revolves around the State of Israel. Jews and Judaism have survived many states without pinning their hopes for survival on a political structure. Many Jews cannot imagine a future for either the Jews or Judaism without this particular political configuration. This apocalyptic sentiment, quite common among the Jews nowadays, constitutes a significant innovation and a sharp break with the past. However, this opinion, which was categorically rejected by the rabbis at the beginning of the 20th century, never succeeded in rallying modernized Jewish intellectuals to the cause. Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Simon Dubnow (1860-1941), to name two, held nothing but contempt for Zionism and insisted that organic connections with exile constituted an essential precondition for the survival of the Jews down through the centuries
It comes as no surprise that Zionism's Judaic opponents are more often than not absent from Israeli historiography. Aside from a handful of monographs and collections of essays devoted specifically to the history of relations between Zionism and Judaism, the great majority of national histories written in Israel and elsewhere make no reference whatsoever to the rabbinical resistance. Even the New Historians, who have paid serious, even sympathetic attention to Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise, tend to ignore the religious opposition and its political initiatives. Those who ground their opposition to Zionism in Reform Judaism are even less visible in the historiography of Zionism and of the State of Israel. This creates the illusion of a state-centred consensus among the Jews. While their secular adversaries have a place in Zionist history, pious Jews are, for all intents and purposes, missing from it. Even though Israelis are familiar with the Judaic opposition to Zionism, this opposition is rarely mentioned in histories of Zionism. Zionism has come to signify both a break in Jewish continuity and a break in the historiography, which also appears to follow the ebb and flow of events.
Most Haredim are oblivious of this historiographic lacuna. They experience the highest demographic growth among the Jews. More importantly, their descendants tend to remain within the normative framework of Judaism and thus may well become "a triumphant majority" should the State of Israel lose its place as the pillar of identity for the rest of the Jewry. This is why it is important to understand their thought with respect to Zionism and the State of Israel. This is why I have written my book initially titled In the Name of Torah. The English title A Threat form Within was deemed more attractive to the general reader who might otherwise think it is an obtuse theological treatise, which it emphatically is not. In fact, the English version is livelier and more readable thanks to my translator Fred Reed. This brings me to the questions posed by the reader Aaron Levitt.
Do you see a conflict between political Zionism and the moral and ethical heart of Judaism?
These are very different phenomena. Political Zionism emerged as an alternative to, and a negation of, traditional Judaism. This relationship has not changed, it is just becoming more manifest as the history of the Zionist state unfolds.
If so, what do you think we should do about it?
If by "we" you mean Jews who not only care about Judaism but consider it the basis of their spiritual identity, then they should simply continue their Judaic practice. As the Mishna puts, "in a place in which there is no human, try to be one."
If not, do you think there's any chance you might be wrong, and what (if anything) should we do about that?
I always assume I can be wrong. In this case these Jews will continue to practice their Judaism while the state also acquires "the moral and ethical heart of Judaism?. In this case, I will be happy to be wrong.
Prof. Rabkin offered some comments on the talkbacks at the bottom of the page.
In response to the first dozen of talkbacks I have read, let me first state the easiest: my name is Yakov Rabkin, not Rabcov (although this is a cute compression of my family and first names), nor even Yacov Rabkin, even though this is relatively minor.
More to the point, several people have mentioned growing antisemitism and annihilation threatening the Jews. I devote an entire chapter to the attempted annihilation during World War II as it is seen from Zionist and anti-Zionist perspectives. Here worldviews differ sharply, but this should give material for a serene debate.
Traditional Jews' settlement in the Holy Land that is brought up in the first talkback is quite different from the Zionist settlement. In fact, most Palestinian Jews at the time met the Zionist pioneers with undisguised hostility. In this sense, the Zionist project was opposed by most of the local inhabitants, whatever their religion. The Zionist movement was quite aware of this and overtly called for colonization. If I remember correctly, the first Zionist bank was called "Jewish Colonial Trust." This need not defame Zionism since few Europeans saw anything wrong with colonialism at that time. Some of them remain appreciative of colonialism to this day.
One of the talkbacks uses the term fundamentalism, which may not be quite appropriate. In fact, Judaism relies on tradition, i.e. transmission and actualization, rather than on the biblical texts as do some Christian movements. This creates an interesting paradox. While the conservative Haredim uphold the tradition, the more modern National-Religious overly innovate by developing "Torath Eretz Yisrael", which does take some biblical texts more literally. In this sense, they may appear more "fundamentalist" than the Haredim.